Neutrinos not so fast after all?

The news that some neutrinos may travel faster than the speed of light caused a sensation when it broke in September of last year.

Like many physicists who have lived through similar reports in the past, my reaction was one of skepticism, both of the claim and the highly overwrought reporting that it generated. We suspected that something was skewing the results, and there was no shortage of alternative hypotheses. I did take the opportunity, though, to write a 14-part series explaining the theory of relativity so that non-physicists would have a better idea of what was involved.

It now turns out that the results may be spurious and the reason may be even more mundane than we thought, involving a faulty optical fiber connection between the GPS signal and the experiment’s main clock. More experiments and tests will be done just to make sure that there really is nothing there.

This demonstrates the self-correcting nature of science, especially in the internet age where it is hard to keep exciting but preliminary results from causing a sensation before they have become tested and repeated and on their way to becoming part of the scientific consensus before the news reaches the general public.

We should expect to see many such false alarms in the future.


  1. SpaceGhoti says

    I thought CERN had conducted the same experiment and obtained the same results. Was I mistaken?

  2. Morejello says

    Even the scientists themselves, when they announced the preliminary results, said in essence “we don’t think this result is right and are going to thoroughly review the experiment and test the equipment.” It was the journalists who couldn’t bother to get it right and were all “OMG nutrinos faster than light!”

  3. mnb0 says

    The news has reached the Dutch newspapers as well. In the one I read on line coverage was not overwrought at all.
    Still it’s a bit of a pity; I can’t deny that I was excited. Ah well, there is still the Higgs boson left.

  4. Mano Singham says

    No, you were not mistaken. I wrote about that here.

    But what the repeated experiment involved was a smaller pulse of neutrino bursts that eliminated the need of some statistical work to find the time of flight. While eliminating one possible source of error, those results would have suffered from the same problem as the original experiment.

  5. SpaceGhoti says

    Ah, so they reproduced the same experiment but with the same equipment. That makes much more sense, thank you.

  6. sometimeszero says

    Everyone is looking for the latest and most shocking scientific bombshell to rock the world.

    Yet what I’ve noticed about science is that it seems less inclined to rely on radical, ground-breaking discoveries and more inclined to utilize gradational gains in knowledge (including the deep knowledge of experimental failure) to pave the way for it’s paradigm shifts and newest directions.

    I’m no physicist, but when I first read a brief story in the local newspaper titled “Roll over Einstein: Pillar of physics challenged” about the neutrino, I was immediately skeptical.

    My father, who doesn’t even have a rudimentary grasp of physics, immediately used the article as “proof” that science changes “all the time” and theories come and go.

    Too many people just don’t understand the build-in self-correcting mechanisms that science is equipped with, and the media never fail to aggravate the problem. There have got to be ways to handle this counterproductive media influence.

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